Perceiving the World As A Survivor: It's All About Attitude

By: Michael Gaultois

On the night of March 26, 1991, three of my friends and I were severely burned in a cabin fire in the hills behind our community of Irishtown, Newfoundland. I still remember that night as if it was yesterday. Apparently, while a couple of us were sleeping in the upper level of the cabin, a friend downstairs had a candle lit that tipped during the night igniting the sofa.


I barely escaped the inferno and suffered mostly 86 % full thickness burns. Two of my other friends escaped while my 13-year-old friend perished in the blaze. I got to the nearest home where friends had called for an ambulance. Within an hour I was transported by ambulance to the nearest hospital. I had a rough idea of the extent of my burns because as I examined myself, my skin was falling off like the dead leaves falling from a tree in the fall of the year.

After several hours of fluid resuscitation, I was transported by air ambulance to a burn unit in St. John's Newfoundland. I was not aware of my surroundings at this time because I was placed on a paralyzing drug to ensure that I did not wake with the possibility of going into shock. Doctors told my family that they could not provided the special medical treatment that I required in order to survive. Fortunately, thanks to a group known as the "Shriners", I was flown to the famous Shriner's hospital for burn injured children in Boston, Massachusetts where I would spend an entire 26 weeks.

My initial treatment involved extensive grafting procedures, which often meant between 6-8 hours in the O.R. After having nearly 25 surgeries before my release from the hospital, I realized that the surgical procedures were only a small part of my recovery.

Just when I thought I was prepared to deal with the world outside, I wasn't. After nearly two years post- burn, hiding behind a mask and full body Jobst garment to help minimize scarring, I began to experience a sense of alienation, feelings of inferiority, and a sense that I was perceived differently by those around me. However, as time passed and being fortunate enough to have the loving support of my girlfriend and my extended family, my perception of society began to change. What I realized was that a lot of times when people would stare and stare again I was often the center of attention. I often wondered what people were thinking sometimes when they turned to look at me. Do they know that I am a burn survivor? Or would they like to share some kind words of encouragement because they can see that I had some kind of accident, but don't know quite how to address me.


After quite a bit of soul searching I found the answers to these questions that often revolved in circular motions in my mind. One thing I began to realize was that when people often gave me the second glance it was a wonderful opportunity for me just to say hi, how are you today? I was suprised the positive responses that I received for initiating conversation. I have found that People are only as comfortable with me as I was with myself. If you project on to others that you are a "survivor" in spite of adversity, you are giving a message of hope to countless people who can learn so much from you.

As I continued to be positive I became very confident and returned back to school graduating in the top of my class. I am now a 4th year university student and the father of a beautiful 8-year-old son whom I adore. After several years of gradually getting my life together, I started to return to a sense of normalcy by rebuilding my body, mind and spirit. I am now very active in bodybuilding, Cycling, Snowboarding, Dancing and playing pool. I have been and continue to be an active public speaker going into schools, churches, and community groups. Despite a loss of mobility in my hands I have not let the things that I enjoy in life slip away from them. If there was one thing I could point out about what it takes to become a survivor, I would have to say, "it's all about attitude".